Archive for the 'gift economy' Category

What if we give it away?

By David Parkinson

A tiny jungle of kale plants hunkers down for winter

That which seems to be wealth may in verity be only the gilded index of far-reaching ruin.
(John Ruskin, 1860, “The Veins of Wealth”)

Yesterday, to celebrate Black Friday, Democracy Now rebroadcast a couple of recent interviews: one with economist Manfred Max-Neef and the other with environmental activist Derrick Jensen. They’re both worth listening to, but I was really caught by the interview with ‘barefoot economist’ Max-Neef, who proposes an economics in radical opposition to neoclassical economics and its trendy offshoot neoliberalism, which can be summed up as the belief that the market is the supreme force underlying and determining all aspects of human life.

Max-Neef proposes a new set of principles on which to base a sane economics. From the transcript:

The principles, you know, of an economics which should be are based in five postulates and one fundamental value principle.

  • One, the economy is to serve the people and not the people to serve the economy.
  • Two, development is about people and not about objects.
  • Three, growth is not the same as development, and development does not necessarily require growth.
  • Four, no economy is possible in the absence of ecosystem services.
  • Five, the economy is a subsystem of a larger finite system, the biosphere, hence permanent growth is impossible.

And the fundamental value to sustain a new economy should be that no economic interest, under no circumstance, can be above the reverence of life.

These principles lead to an economic (and social) system which is extremely different from the one we are stuck in now. I believe that events beyond the control of the economists and politicians are going to compel us to shift to a more human-scale economics within the next decade or so; and this process of humanization and relocalization will continue for the foreseeable future — played out against the ongoing consequences of the overshoot and damage caused by clinging for too long to an anti-human and anti-biospheric way of living. Everything in our media and societal belief system sets us against these coming changes, but I’m not alone in hoping that their net effect will be positive. The way we do things now is extremely out of balance in every way, and the pendulum needs to swing back. Other values need to start trumping the relentless voracious consumption of the planet and its conversion to junk.

The lucky thing is that the seeds of the new economic arrangements are everywhere around us, many lying dormant but many others beginning to sprout and take root. And the place to look for these seeds is in the gift economies that perform an absolutely staggering amount of the good work that goes on around here, and in every community.

The essence of a gift economy is that “valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards (i.e. no formal quid pro quo exists).” And where do we see that most often? It’s the not-for-profit and volunteer sector, where people regularly contribute enormous amounts of work for no tangible benefits — at least not of the sort that economists know how to measure, at least not without converting them into ‘in-kind donations’ measured in conventional units of currency. Volunteers and givers work to be part of a healthy community with arts, culture, recreation, and strong social ties among  people and groups. This is not something we can or should expect the cash economy to produce; if anything, the relentless need to work and consume undercuts the hard work of the gift economy.

To take an example which is front and centre in my life lately: I am bowled over by the amount of cooperative work and passionate energy that people are putting into the resuscitation of our local community radio station, CJMP FM. I’ve been involved in plenty of volunteer projects in and around Powell River, but I have never seen anything like the work that people are devoting to this one: they’re showing up to meetings, doing research, and contributing their time and their skills. Local DJs and promoters are offering to donate proceeds from music shows to help get the station off the ground. And the energy is growing. It’s very inspiring to see.

The most interesting thing about this particular project is that operating a community radio station is unlike many other not-for-profit initiatives in that it requires relatively small amounts of capital for startup and ongoing cash for operating expenses. Once you have the gear you need to get the signal from microphone to transmitter to tower, then you only need to rent a space, keep your gear dry, and you’re pretty much ready to get going.

What you do need, and in large amounts, is the time and energy of dedicated and cherished volunteers. And in order to attract and keep volunteers, you need to create an environment which rewards people for contributing their time, expertise, and energy. It has to be the case that those who contribute more, instead of feeling taken advantage of, get even more out of the experience than those who contribute less. Participation has to become its own incentive.

The radio station is only one of many such examples, but it happens to be one that is much on my mind lately. And I’m certain that as the current economic system continues to shift and shudder we’ll start to see more of these seedlings of mutual support and community-building take on more importance in people’s lives. We have surrounded ourselves with an economy which produces unimaginable amounts of what we call ‘wealth’ but which at the same time has impoverished the world by trashing the non-human world and lessening our dependence on each other. We need to start figuring out how to give away our wealth and our labour with the expectation that it will come around again, although not necessarily from the same person or place we gave it to.

For the last half-century or so, we’ve created a system in which extreme dependence on large-scale systems has rewarded us with the most widely-distributed wealth ever seen in the history of the world. Everyone in our society, except for the very poorest, still lives in greater comfort and security than the richest people in previous ages. But the dark downside of this total dependence in huge centralized social, political, and industrial systems is that, once they start to fall apart, we find that we have lost the simple ability to connect, cooperate, and build an economy to sustain us. This where we’re heading, and we’re going to have to find the ingenuity to flow around the eroding remnants of the broken system on our way to saner arrangements.

We’ll find our back to relationships among people and groups which are based much more on the free, uncoerced giving of our labour and our belongings in the knowledge that we will not be abandoned by a system imposed from above by people who have no interest in our local struggles and needs. Of course it’ll be scary and weird at times; but along the way we’ll gain the perspective that permits us to see how scary and weird this supposed best of all possible systems has been all along. That’s something to look forward to.


Gifts freely given

By David Parkinson

Our backyard peach tree in bloom

Our backyard peach tree in bloom

Everything you do
Returns at last to you;
So why don’t you do love
(Tom Rapp, “I Saw The World”)

This past weekend I was lucky to participate in a strategic planning exercise in my capacity as a director of the Malaspina Land Conservancy Society (MLCS), a fairly young but fast-moving new land trust in the region. We were recently granted charitable tax status by the Canadian government, so now we are able to issue tax receipts and work in earnest with landowners and interested parties to conserve lands of interest to the community, whether the reason for conservation be environmental, agricultural, recreational, scientific, historic, or any other comparable reason.

Having been involved with the MLCS since the very first meetings held to discuss the creation of a land trust specific to this region, I have had many opportunities to learn about what goes into forming and nurturing a volunteer-based not-for-profit organization. One thing I have realized is the enormous amount of invaluable and devoted care and attention that goes into the many groups and activities that we take for granted in the community.

As a quick and not very scientific example: I did a rough back-of-the envelope calculation of the value to the community of all of the volunteer work that went into Seedy Saturday, a five-hour event which draws around 500 people. I figured that if the hourly rate for volunteers’ time was $20, the event could be said to cost the equivalent of $12,000 in wages alone. We can consider that as  a contribution to the community, made freely and generously by the many people who pitch in to make this event a success. In fact, it jars slightly even to think about converting this volunteer time and energy into crude dollars.

And you can imagine — if you multiply this one fairly modest event by the number of volunteer groups out there, by the number of board meetings, by the hours spent researching, writing, emailing, keeping records up to date, and by all of the other many small but important tasks that keep any organization functioning — that the total value of the mysterious ‘grey economy’ of volunteer labour could be reckoned on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not in the millions of dollars.

When you consider that these gifts of tremendous value are given freely, that in fact they take place as the by-products of hundreds of people’s passionate desire to make the community a better place, you begin to see that this is about much more than dollars. It’s really about recognizing and respecting the existence of an alternative economy, one that has been called the Gift Economy. (I recently read Lewis Hyde’s amazing book The Gift: The Erotic Life of Property, and hope to write about it in future.) We can translate the activity of this economy into the currency of the classical economy (money, goods, etc.), but much is lost in translation. And there is no straightforward way to convert activity in the money economy into the spirit of selfless giving which is at the heart of the Gift Economy. They depend on entirely distinct impulses: in the Gift Economy, greater merit attaches to giving than to accumulating; whereas in the non-Gift Economy, which we refer to as “the economy”, greater merit attaches to accumulating and holding instead of giving back.

What is most interesting about this observation is that we almost entirely lack the vocabulary for describing and appreciating the wealth that we create through participation in the Gift Economy. It is certainly not as though we are creating something like money by using volunteer labour to ‘stand in for’ money. We are instead circulating the gifts that cannot be converted to money: our presence, our attention, our friendship, our support for one another and for worthy projects that we tend overlook — or at best treat as secondary — in the money economy (things like saving species at risk, preserving watersheds, creating safe spaces for marginalized people, and so on).

Which brings me back to our strategic planning session on Saturday. We got together as a board of directors to talk about our vision, our mission, and our values. These statements of what we believe, where we are headed, and how we intend to get there will shape our activities and give shape to the work we intend to contribute to the community (by bringing a lot of eager members on board to share the work). In a way, our strategic plan is like a list of the gifts that we hope to help the community bestow on itself: some of them more tangible, like parcels of land saved from devastation or preserved for public use; some of them less tangible, like a sense of shared work and accomplishment through conservation efforts.

And the role of the board of directors, as directors come and go through the board, is to stay true to this vision, to adapt it to changing circumstances, to continue to enlist participation — in short: to continue working away in one tiny corner of the Gift Economy, greatly benefiting our region without necessarily engaging in monetary activity, of less worth but greater value, no commerce but the commons.

All the groups out there who have taken up one cause or another are working in the Gift Economy when they contribute freely, with no expectation of payment, to the things they value most. And these groups, whether or not they have engaged in an explicit exercise of articulating their vision, their mission, and their values, are giving gifts of incalculable worth and deserve our recognition and thanks. Thank you all!

Slow the economy!

By David Parkinson

Beautiful, practical, self-regenerating, self-regulating... the natural economy is everything the human-made one is not.

Beautiful, practical, self-regenerating, self-regulating... the natural economy is everything the human-made one is not.

The problem is, of course, that not only is economics bankrupt but it has always been nothing more than politics in disguise… economics is a form of brain damage.
(Hazel Henderson)

The economy is falling apart. Why? When will it hit bottom? Can we get back to normal?

I don’t want to get back to normal. The economy which surrounds us, and which we accept as inevitable — although it isn’t — is a shambles. Even when it’s operating as it’s supposed to, it produces endless amounts of waste, destruction, and misery. And the smart-ass comeback to complaints like this is supposed to be something along the lines of “Well, let’s see you do better”, or “But the only alternative is communism, and look how that turned out”, or similar platitudes.

The fact of the matter, as far as I’m concerned, is that what we call ‘the economy’ is best seen as a huge and sprawling system of social networks which dictate how wealth is created, stored, and transferred. The economy is intimately connected to a similarly huge and sprawling  political system which determines how power is created and deployed. Political power roughly means the ability to make decisions about who gets what share of wealth created in the economic system and always comes backed up with a monopoly on the use of violence to enforce its decisions.

The people who are attracted to power — which is to say, the people who enjoy being on the inside, in the backrooms where the real decisions are made — end up being the people in charge of deciding how the economy is configured. And so naturally the economy becomes a tool for consolidating their power. If that sounds like a conspiracy theory, try to imagine how it could work out any other way. You don’t need a conspiracy to make the inevitable happen; you just need time. It’s a simple recognition of the truth of political power. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, in his 1983 book The Anatomy of Power, describes three types of power:

  • compensatory power, which asserts itself by purchasing submission;
  • condign power, which asserts itself through violence or the threat of violence;
  • conditioned power, which asserts itself through persuasion.

According to Galbraith, power originates with personality, property, or organization. So, for example, the power of a government is expressed largely as condign and conditioned power, since it has the ability to threaten to punish those who go against its wishes (the wishes of a government are called ‘laws’), and it uses conditioned power in the form of patriotism, allegiance to local norms and ‘decent behaviour’, and so on.

But a government also expresses its power — to be more precise, the power of those who control that government — in the form of compensatory power. Access to power is access to the rules by which wealth is generated. And therefore, without serious checks and balances, this is a classic positive feedback loop: those who have the power to determine how the economy functions can steer it to their advantage, thereby creating more wealth and more power for themselves. Again, not a conspiracy theory so much as an honest observation of the how the world works.

What we’re seeing lately, in the ongoing implosion of the economy, is that some of the more interesting and creative ways for wealthy and powerful individuals and groups to turn wealth into even more wealth were simply bogus. And as time goes on, we see the extent to which governments were colluding in this fictional economy. I don’t find it very useful to consider the government as separate from the corporations and other parts of the economy: increasingly over the last few years the two have merged more and more. Governments are really the public-relations and enforcement sector of an all-encompassing economy which takes everything in and leaves less and less space for people to live simply, according to ancient and honourable traditions. The right to gather and produce food and plant medicines is hemmed in by laws and regulations which are supposedly there to protect us, but which always end up favouring large centralized corporate interests. (As if by accident.)

Even worse, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the preferred solution to this potential catastrophe is simply more of the same. As long as the people who stood to gain from this massive fraud are the same people who control the mechanisms of condign state power, there will be no real punishment, no stock-taking, no accountability. Ask yourself: if you were powerful, would you allow the law to come down on your head just for doing what everyone else is doing? Not bloody likely.

And the real problem is that even when the economy is working it’s a nightmare for much of the planet. Everyone knows that we are devastating natural systems like fish stocks and aquifers. Everyone knows that human activity, much of it frivolous, contributes vastly to greenhouse gases. Everyone knows that species are going extinct at ever greater rates. Everyone knows that the food supply is threatened by climate change, changes in weather patterns, and disruptions often caused by wars and other man-made conflict. Everyone knows that we are in danger of running out of easily extracted fossil fuels, which will be simultaneously a tragedy and a godsend. The scale of human activity cannot be sustained by the natural world.

And meanwhile, as always, there is a smaller and quieter economy ticking away, doing what it does in harmony with its natural surroundings. Wendell Berry has a lovely essay about this where he refers to the ‘Great Economy’, by which he means the Kingdom of God, although he observes that other notions such as the Tao cover the same meaning. He makes the point that we can never hope to create a truly lasting human economy which does not respect the laws and ways of the Great Economy. Berry points to five principles of the Great Economy:

  1. Completeness: “It includes everything; in it, the fall of every sparrow is a significant event”;
  2. Orderliness: “Everything in the Kingdom of God is joined both to it and to everything else that is in it”;
  3. Ineffability: “Humans do not and can never know either all the creatures that the Kingdom of God contains or the whole pattern or order by which it contains them”;
  4. Autonomy (in the literal sense of creating and obeying its own laws): “Though we cannot produce a complete or even adequate description of this order, severe penalties are in store for us if we presume upon it or violate it”;
  5. Infinitude: “We cannot foresee an end to it”.

I believe that many people, and more all the time, are starting to understand that we cannot continue to tinker at the margins of an unsustainable economy, serving the needs of a blind and swinish political culture. We need to work our way back to the fundamental principles of sustainability, only now we must do this as a conscious choice, and against powerful forces in the political and economic systems. And a genuinely sustainable society must revolve around a genuinely sustainable economy, and that economy must rest on principles as lofty and as all-encompassing as Berry’s. Sorry, but that’s just the way it’s gotta be now.

Traditional cultures lived according to Berry’s notion of a Great Economy because they had no choice; they respected the implacable laws of the world because not to do so meant needless suffering and death. We have created an economy which is the wonder of human evolution, which makes possible unimaginable technical feats, which is able to reduce and in some cases eliminate deadly diseases, hunger, and the other traditional sources of human misery. But the downside of these advances is the massive over-consumption of resources; the buildup of toxic wastes which threatens our air, water, and food; worsening resource wars; famine; poverty; early and preventable death. Our technical abilities are amazing, but we have no clear sense how to use them to advance the cause of all life on earth.

We have been faced all along with tough choices, but we haven’t had to recognize them as choices. We didn’t know that we could choose not to pull all the oil out of the earth’s crust and burn it up. We didn’t know that we could choose not to build cities in deserts and bring water in from hundreds of miles away, depleting watersheds and draining aquifers. We didn’t know that we could choose not to covert forests to grasslands to monocultured farms in order to produce more meat than was healthy for us or for the planet. Etc. Well, some of these choices are becoming clear in retrospect; and we will always be faced with future choices. Perhaps we can start to recognize them for what they are, and not blindly rush into anything that looks likely to make the powerful more powerful and the wealthy more wealthy.

How can we get from here to there? How can we create a functioning local economy which takes advantage of our increased technical abilities and yet does not endanger all life on earth? How ca we learn to recognize real choices and decide wisely?

Of course, I don’t have the answers to those questions. I’ll do my best to think through them in future columns, and I’ll report on some of the cutting-edge thinking going on out there. My personal preference is to look for answers in the last places where the technocrats and bureaucrats and well-paid consultants would have us look: in the practices of traditional cultures; in the pasts of the various cultures which make up North American industrial society; in the odd corners of the alternative universe where things like permaculture and gift economies are slowly but surely proving their worth as ways of organizing human labour and creativity and producing genuine (not phantasmagorical and life-destroying) wealth.

It’s funny (if you like gallows humour) to see so much fuss and fervour about sustainability these days, as though this is something that only we — the highly evolved citizens of the greatest society ever known — could have devised; when in fact it is this culture which has devised the need to talk about sustainability as though it is something to be added onto what one already does, like a condiment for industrial capitalism to make it yummier and more healthful. And that is because it is we who have strayed from the path of human history by inventing and practicing unsustainability on a massive scale, making it synonymous with prosperity, and letting it spread throughout the world like a virus.

Post facto

July 2018
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